Why are Australian leaders so poor at engaging staff?

According to a recent survey by Towers Watson, which included 32,000 workers around the world, about 72% of Australian employees were not fully engaged in their work.

And further to that, Australian workers scored lower than the global average on nine out of 10 detailed engagement questions.

What are we to make of these disappointing results? Are our leaders and managers so lacking in these vital people skills? Or perhaps it is the quality of our employees, or some combination of the two?

I do not know the answers to these broad questions but I would like to suggest two areas of opportunities for leaders and HR professionals to improve their team’s engagement scores.

The first is by applying the work of Harvard professor Teresa Amabile, who in her research, has found that the number one motivator of employee performance is ‘making progress’.

Yes, it’s true: making progress towards a meaningful goal scores is more important than recognition, rewards, interpersonal support and an array of other usual suspects.

As Amabile notes: ‘Making progress in one’s work – even incremental progress – is more frequently associated with positive emotions and high motivation than any workday event.’

Using this approach would suggest that anything a manager or leader can do to help their staff to make progress would be welcome. This might include developing meaningful goals, providing enough resources and removing any barriers to progress.

The good news is that these actions are entirely within the leader’s control and are more impactful than complicated recognition or reward programs, for example.

The second approach is based on an insight.

Most work today is done in groups and teams. It makes sense, therefore, to focus management attention on the collective effort rather than only individuals.

If groups and teams can become more productive, creative and energised, it follows that individual engagement levels would improve. This will require new thinking and new tools. For example, KPIs might have to include more group or team goals as well as individual ones. In addition, tools such as our Blitz can be introduced to help small groups accelerate their progress.

If the results from the Towers and Watson survey are valid, then Australian leaders and managers are behind the rest of the world in engaging their staff.

It is time we recognise this reality and change the way we lead. Our goal, surely, is to become world-class. The two suggestions outlined here might help leaders achieve this worthy ambition.


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